[Marxism] Amazon rainforest civilization

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 1 08:15:32 MST 2004

Chronicle of Higher Education, December 3, 2004
Earth Movers
Archaeologists say Brazil's rain forest, once thought to be inhospitable 
to humans, fostered huge ancient civilizations. The proof is in the dirt.

Iranduba, Brazil

High along bluffs overlooking the confluence of the mighty Negro and 
Solimões Rivers here, supersize eggplants, papayas, and cassava spring 
from the ground.

Their exuberance defies a long-held belief about the Amazon. For much of 
the last half century, archaeologists viewed the South American rain 
forest as a "counterfeit paradise," a region whose inhospitable 
environment precluded the development of complex societies. But new 
research suggests that prehistoric man found ways to overcome the 
jungle's natural limitations -- and to thrive in this environment in 
large numbers.

The secret, says James B. Petersen, an archaeologist at the University 
of Vermont who has spent the past decade working in the Brazilian 
Amazon, is found in the ground beneath his feet. It is a highly fertile 
soil called terra preta do indio, which is Portuguese for "Indian black 
earth." By some estimates, this specially modified soil covers as much 
as 10 percent of Amazonia, the immense jungle region that straddles the 
Amazon River. And much of that area is packed with potsherds and other 
signs of human habitation.

"This was one of the last archaeological frontiers on the planet. It's 
as if we know nothing about it," says Mr. Petersen, as he analyzes the 
discovery of the day, a series of circular carbon deposits that might 
indicate the outline of a prehistoric house.

Scientists are now working to determine whether terra preta, which 
contains high levels of organic matter and carbon, was deliberately 
created by pre-Columbian civilizations to improve upon the notoriously 
poor rain-forest soil, or whether the modified earth was an accidental 
byproduct of sustained habitation by large groups of people.

Either way, Mr. Petersen believes it likely that pre-Columbian societies 
in the Amazon were not the primitive tribal societies they were once 
thought to be, but highly complex chiefdoms.

"We're providing the proof," he says during a several-week-long dig in 
August near the Brazilian jungle city of Manaus. His team of American 
and Brazilian archaeologists, who call themselves the Central Amazon 
Project, have excavated more than 60 sites rich in terra preta near 
where the Negro and Solimões Rivers merge to form the Amazon River proper.

One of the group's founders, Michael J. Heckenberger of the University 
of Florida, is bolstering the new findings with research on large 
prehistoric earthworks farther east along the upper Xingu River. 
Studying this area, which now is inhabited by the Kuikuru Indians, has 
allowed him to compare data of prehistoric land management with modern 
ethnographic studies.

On some pre-Columbian sites explored by Mr. Petersen and his team, 
several miles of earth are packed with millions of potsherds. The 
archaeologists have also found evidence that they say points to the 
existence of giant plazas, bridges, and roads, complete with curbs, and 
defensive ditches that would have taken armies of workers to construct.

Intriguingly, the earliest evidence of large, sedentary populations 
appears to coincide with the beginnings of terra preta.

"Something happened 2,500 years ago, and we don't know what," says 
Eduardo Góes Neves, a Brazilian archaeologist at the Federal University 
of São Paulo, who is co-director of the Central Amazon Project. He dusts 
off the flanged edge of a bowl from around 400 BC that one of his 
Brazilian graduate students pulled from a layer of terra preta eight 
feet down. The team got lucky when the landowner at Açutuba, the largest 
of their excavation sites, bulldozed a huge pit in one of his fields. 
The "swimming pool," as the team jokingly calls the 15-yard-wide hole, 
is giving them a rare chance to compare levels of terra preta over a 
large area.

The research has implications not only for history, but also for the 
future of the Amazon rain forest. If scientists could discover how the 
Amerindians transformed the soil, farmers could use the technology to 
maximize smaller plots of land, rather than cutting down ever larger 
swaths of jungle. The benefits of what Mr. Petersen calls this "gift 
from the past" are already well known to farmers in the area, who plant 
their crops wherever they find terra preta.

Rich in Controversy

The claims made for terra preta extend far beyond a legacy passed down 
from farmer to farmer. The archaeologists now reject the idea that 
pre-contact Amerindians were -- as one team member says, ironically -- 
"Stone Age primitives frozen at the dawn of time."

"It's made by pre-Columbian Indians and it's still fertile," says Bruno 
Glaser, a soil chemist from the University of Bayreuth, in Germany, who 
was taking samples of terra preta from another site discovered by Mr. 
Petersen's team. "If we knew how to do this, it would be a model for 
agriculture in the whole region."

Ideally what researchers dub "slash and char" agriculture, the 
indigenous technique that returns nutrients to the soil by mixing in 
organic waste and carbon, could replace slash-and-burn, a contemporary 
technique that consumes tens of thousands of acres of rain forest every 
year. Mr. Glaser is part of an international team of scientists studying 
the chemical composition of terra preta in an effort to recreate it.

The research into terra preta fuels a revisionist school of scientists 
who argue that pre-Columbian Amazonia was not a pristine wilderness, but 
rather a heavily managed forest teeming with human beings. They believe 
that advanced societies existed in the Amazon from before the time of 
Christ until a century after the European conquest in the 1500s 
decimated Amerindian populations through exploitation and disease. The 
theory is also supported by the accounts of the first Europeans to 
travel the length of the Amazon in 1542. They reported human settlements 
with tens of thousands of people stretching for many miles along the 
river banks.

But not everyone working in the field of Amazonian research buys the new 

"The idea that the indigenous population has secrets that we don't know 
about is not supported by anything except wishful thinking and the myth 
of El Dorado," says the archaeologist Betty J. Meggers, who is the main 
defender of the idea that only small, tribal societies ever inhabited 
the Amazon. "This myth just keeps going on and on and on. It's amazing."

Ms. Meggers, director of the Latin American Archaeology Program at the 
Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History, in Washington, has 
spent her life trying to prove that Amazonia is a uniquely untrammeled 
and hostile wilderness. Now 82, Ms. Meggers has been working in the 
field since the late 1940s, when she and her late husband, Clifford 
Evans, began pioneering fieldwork on Marajó Island at the mouth of the 
Amazon. They summarized their findings in their seminal 1954 article, 
"Environmental Limitation on the Development of Culture," which was 
published in American Anthropologist.

Ms. Meggers's 1971 book, Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit 
Paradise (Aldine-Atherton), converted her views into gospel for a 
generation of Amazonian archaeologists. In it, she argued that modern 
Amerindian groups, generally composed of a few hundred people, follow 
ancient practices of infanticide and other population-control measures 
to exist in a hostile environment.

"It had a huge impact," says Susanna B. Hecht, a geographer at the 
University of California at Los Angeles who has spent three decades 
studying traditional farming practices in Amazonia. "Virtually every 
Anthropology I class read that book." Ms. Hecht's most recent research 
is with the Kayapó Indians in the upper Xingu River, the same region 
where Mr. Heckenberger is working. To her surprise, she discovered the 
Indians were creating a version of terra preta by burning excess 
vegetation and weeds and mixing the charcoal into the soil.

"One of the things we found rather unusual was how much burning was 
going on all the time," she says. "It wasn't catastrophic burning. It 
was that the whole landscape was smoldering all the time."

Ms. Hecht says the technique was probably more widespread before Indian 
societies were devastated by the arrival of the Europeans, who 
introduced measles, typhoid, and other diseases to which the Indians had 
no resistance. By some estimates, 95 percent of the Amerindians died 
within the first 130 years of contact. While their numbers were once 
estimated in the millions, there are now roughly 250,000 Amerindians 
living in Brazil.

"I think you could have had very dense populations, and what you had was 
a real holocaust in various forms," she says. However, Ms. Hecht notes, 
little was known about the impact of those epidemics when Ms. Meggers 
was first writing, and her persuasive arguments against large 
civilizations discouraged archaeologists from probing deeper into the 
Amazon. "Everyone said, 'Nobody was there anyway. Why bother?'" says Ms. 

The difficulty and dangers of conducting research in the Amazon also 
played a part. The region was largely impassible until the 1960s, when 
the Brazilian government began encouraging settlement in the jungle's 

A few researchers did challenge Ms. Meggers's theories early on. The 
most outspoken figure was Donald Lathrup, a University of Illinois 
archaeologist who worked in the Peruvian Amazon in the 1950s. He argued 
that Amazonia could and did support complex societies with advanced 
technology, and that the cradle of those civilizations was very likely 
in the central Amazon, where Mr. Petersen is working.

Another pioneer was William M. Denevan, a geographer emeritus at the 
University of Wisconsin, whose discovery of huge earthworks in lowland 
Bolivia in the early 1960s suggested that pre-Columbian peoples modified 
their environment for large-scale agriculture. In a 1992 article, "The 
Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492," he argued that 
the modern Amazon rain forest was the result of human management over 
millennia, not a virgin wilderness.

"The key issue here can be summed up in two words: environmental 
determinism," he says, referring to the once-popular school of thought, 
favored by Ms. Meggers, that says environment dictates man's ability to 
progress. "We are saying people always have options," he says. "We can 
farm in outer space. And we can farm in the Antarctic. Or we can crop in 
the driest part of the Sahara Desert. It may be very expensive, but 
that's a different issue."

Building a Mystery

Other researchers working in Amazonia go even further. They suggest that 
prehistoric man may have created cities that rivaled those of the Aztecs 
and Maya. Again, they say, the proof is in the dirt.

William I. Woods, a geographer at Southern Illinois University at 
Edwardsville, has been studying terra preta deposits extending over 
100,000 acres around the Brazilian jungle city of Santarém, where the 
Tapajós River meets the Amazon. He believes as many as 500,000 people 
might once have inhabited the area, implying a civilization larger than 
the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, once the largest city in the Americas.

"There is some fussing about the magnitude, from tens of thousands, or 
hundreds of thousands, or millions," he says. "But I don't think there 
are too many scholars who have any problems with chiefdoms existing and 
lots of people being supported for long times in various places in the 

Ms. Meggers has not taken challenges to her life's work lying down. In a 
2001 article in Latin American Antiquity, she accuses the revisionist 
camp of endangering the rain forest by suggesting that large-scale 
farming was feasible in the region. Her view is shared by some 
biologists and environmentalists.

"Adherence to 'the lingering myth of Amazonian empires' not only 
prevents archaeologists from reconstructing the prehistory of Amazonia, 
but makes us accomplices in the accelerating pace of environmental 
degradation," she writes.

Mr. Neves, the Brazilian archaeologist, disagrees. "It's not like 
loggers are revving up the chainsaws after reading our articles," he 
says as he walks along a winding dirt road littered with pre-Columbian 
potsherds on his way to the dig site at Açutuba, a jungle-shrouded 
stretch of farmland overlooking the Negro River. "Deforestation through 
ranching isn't how the Amerindian interacted with the landscape," he 
says. "The Amerindians weren't destroying the environment. They were 
enriching it."

The rain forest is not inherently hostile to man, says Mr. Neves. He 
argues that pre-Columbian peoples knew how to use the huge diversity of 
species to their advantage, through a combination of farming, fishing, 
and managed tree harvesting. Cassava, a starchy root that grows well in 
the acidic rain-forest soil, was probably the Amerindians' main food 
source, which the Indians could have supplemented with corn and other 
vegetables grown on terra preta. But they also relied heavily on fish 
and turtles for protein, he says.

Blowing Dust From the Pages

Terra preta proponents also argue that historical accounts support their 
theories. The Rev. Gaspar de Carvajal, a Spanish priest who accompanied 
the first exploratory expedition down the Amazon in 1542, reported 
seeing hundreds of tortoises kept in corrals and "an abundance of meat 
and fish ... that would have fed 1,000 men for a year." The friar also 
recounts an ambush by more than 10,000 Indians at a point in the river 
just west of modern-day Manaus, suggesting that the area was heavily 
populated as recently as the 16th century. He also describes armies of 
Indians who repelled attempts by the Spaniards to come ashore near 
modern-day Santarém.

Ms. Meggers is skeptical. "How could these people, when they're fleeing, 
count 10,000 warriors?" she says. "It's silly." She notes that other 
portions of Father Carvajal's account, in particular his description of 
female Amazon warriors, which gave the river its name, have since been 
dismissed by historians as inventions to impress the Spanish crown.

She also challenges estimates by the Central Amazon Project that between 
5,000 and 10,000 people may have once inhabited Açutuba, possibly the 
largest site under excavation in the Brazilian Amazon. "They have not 
done enough work to establish whether it was a single large settlement 
or a result of intermittent occupation over longer periods of time," she 
says. She also accuses the group of ignoring the results of surveys in 
the region backed by the Smithsonian Institution over several decades.

Mr. Petersen shrugs off the criticism. "We're not here to fight Betty 
Meggers," he says, while taking a break from digging under the broiling 
jungle sun. "We're here to build on her work and refine it." He says 
that Ms. Meggers made a major contribution to the field by highlighting 
the enormous challenges involved in inhabiting the Amazon rain forest, 
even if he argues that later research shows that pre-Columbian peoples 
found ways of overcoming those natural limitations.

His team has several dozen radiocarbon dates from potsherds and carbon 
deposits collected throughout Açutuba, which they say show that the 
entire site was continuously inhabited during two waves from about 360 
BC to as late as 1440 AD. The evidence also supports the existence of 
stratified societies, says Mr. Petersen. He picks up an ornate, white- 
and black-painted potsherd from the terra preta under a field of 
glistening eggplants. "This is probably from about AD 800, and look how 
sophisticated it is. It's like fine dinnerware," he says, comparing the 
sherd with that from a coarser vessel from about the same period, which 
he calls "everyday china." His team has unearthed more than 100,000 
potsherds dating from 500 BC to about AD 1500 at the three-square-mile 
site, including roughly a dozen burial urns.

Digging through earth packed with tons of pottery is slow going. 
Particularly when you only have about eight pairs of hands.

"We've been working here nine years, and we've barely scratched the 
surface," says Mr. Neves, who has raised the bulk of the money from his 
university and the São Paulo state government. He estimates that there 
are at least 100 unexcavated sites within their research area, which 
extends over 40 square miles around the town of Iranduba. Some of the 
sites might be even larger than Açutuba.

Ecological Edge

Unlike the Maya in northern Central America, the inhabitants of the 
Amazon lacked stone for building. So they had to resort to organic and 
man-made materials. As a result there are few permanent markers of 
earlier civilizations, forcing archaeologists to extrapolate from small 
scraps of evidence.

"The only reason that everyone accepts large, socially complex societies 
in Maya land is that they have surviving pyramids and stelae," says Mr. 
Petersen. "If the Maya and others had used mostly organic perishables in 
their architecture, like the Amazon people, then I would bet there would 
be much more mystery and debate about the nature of pre-Columbian 
Amerindians in Central America, too."

At a nearby site, called Hatahara, the team recently excavated 11 human 
skeletons dating to about AD 800 from one nine-yard trench dug into a 
large burial mound. Believing it unlikely that they would have stumbled 
upon the only evidence in the mound, they estimate there may be hundreds 
more bodies buried there, suggesting a population of at least a few 
thousand people.

The skeletons provided the team with other insights into the previous 
inhabitants. "These were not famine-stricken people," Mr. Neves says, 
noting that the skeletons measured about 5-foot-7. In contrast, modern 
indigenous inhabitants often do not grow taller than five feet, a fact 
used by earlier archaeologists to argue that the jungle was unsuited for 
human habitation. "I don't think there were ever severe limitations 
here," says Mr. Neves.

He points at the acres of glistening vegetables that seem to grow 
effortlessly throughout the Açutuba site. Settlers throughout the 
Iranduba area take advantage of the abundant terra preta deposits to 
grow vegetables and fruit for the nearby city of Manaus, supplying much 
of the produce consumed by its 1.4 million people.

"I know terra preta is very good and that it was made by the Indians," 
says Edson Azevedo Santos, a 48-year-old farmer drenched in sweat from 
weeding his zucchini patch. Unlike the acidic soil found in most of the 
rain forest, which can only sustain crops for a three-year period, terra 
preta plots can withstand constant farming for decades, if properly managed.

Even more striking, terra preta may have the capacity to regenerate 
itself, says Mr. Woods, the Southern Illinois geographer. He recently 
tested that possibility by removing a large section of terra preta on a 
plot near Santarem. To his amazement, the soil grew back within three 
years. "I suggested that the soil should be treated as living organism 
and that microorganisms are the secret," he says, adding that more 
research is needed to allow scientists to repeat the process. "This is 
very sophisticated stuff."

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